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Driving change: evolving our culture through design

Having a culture that inspires and challenges people is not easy. At Thoughtworks, we could easily walk down the path of competitiveness and control. Instead, we walk in the opposite direction. We value a safe and autonomous environment where we cultivate each other in order to foster technical excellence.

We are a community of technologists, proud of our diversity. We strive to create an environment where Thoughtworkers own their growth journey, make their mark, and intentionally and continuously help each other grow. This is what we call cultivation.

Cultivation has deep roots in our culture. A quote from a popular internal email thread encapsulates the essence of this concept: 

“Good developers develop good code. Great developers develop themselves. Greater developers develop others."

Our first step to strengthen cultivation at Thoughtworks has been to improve our feedback culture. Feedback is a powerful tool to help people better communicate, collaborate, and change their behavior for the better. 

After conducting global research on what empowers people to grow and what holds them back, we learned that feedback is vitally important to our organisation because it encourages people to deliver better results and to build stronger relationships. However, as individuals, we could do it better.

Results from our research highlighted that feedback was both the biggest obstacle to growth and the biggest engine for growth. From all Thoughtworkers that were interviewed, 50% said “I receive constructive feedback that supports my growth,” and around 30% said, “I don’t receive enough quality feedback at the right time.”

Uncovering the problem: how might we strengthen our feedback culture?

To deepen our understanding, we ran quality interviews with 40 people. We learned that what helps people grow at Thoughtworks is:
  • Feedback 
  • Knowledge sharing 
  • Cultivation (grow yourself while growing others)
  • An environment of learning by doing 

When it comes to feedback, we realized that Thoughtworkers were not receiving enough feedback at the right time. They also tended to avoid difficult conversations, which usually made things worse and caused the escalation of issues. When identified and addressed early, small problems could be solved more easily. One fundamental shift we had to address was that feedback conversations don't always have to be difficult conversations.

Interviews with leadership reinforced the need to empower Thoughtworkers to have timely feedback conversations as well as difficult conversations. They said, “the way we currently deal with feedback can hurt our business.” 

When someone has performance issues in the team, and nobody addresses it, it gets worse, and the People Team (commonly known as HR) has to intervene. Timely feedback and difficult conversations could have helped to avoid these unpleasant escalations

Positive feedback was another critical area that needed work. Some people made it clear that knowing early on what they were doing well, was as important to them as knowing what they needed to improve on. Positive feedback can help us understand if we are on track and grow our confidence. Feeling appreciated can improve our engagement and satisfaction. In our kind of environment, where there is an absence of more formal reward mechanisms, Thoughtworkers see great value in positive feedback, appreciation, and encouragement.

By conducting these interviews, it became clear that this was a problem worth solving. We were able to go deep and refine our understanding of the problem, surfacing the huge impact that solving it could have for our organisation.

In a consulting organization such as ours, where we have an intentionally loose structure, meaningful connections and conversations between individuals are fundamental for people to get guidance and support. Good communication helps individuals recognize efforts and redirect when needed. Feedback is key to making this happen. 

The first idea – like the first draft – is never good enough

So how could we upskill people to deliver higher quality feedback? How could we foster the right mindset to give and receive feedback?

The first step that we took was to create a source of truth of all the foundational information on the subject at hand. We called it the Feedback Playbook. 

After testing the first draft of the playbook, we realized that it was too long. We knew that our readers have limited time, so we needed to come up with a simpler and more effective version. 

To succeed, get help and empower those who want to make the change happen

From the start of this initiative, we knew we needed to have more people involved. We intentionally co-created the materials with different layers of the organization working together.

“Leadership gave us direction, advisory and endorsement. Volunteers helped us make this useful for them and their teams”.

The enhanced version of the Feedback Playbook now includes more examples that are easy to consume, besides being more visually appealing with less text. The content was better structured and organised, making it more engaging. 

This playbook, an extensive guide on feedback, resulted in an interactive document. It was built from the best content from our organisation combined with the latest external research and resources available. We were inspired by many books and articles such as Thanks for the Feedback, by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen and HBR's The Feedback Fallacy by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall.

Visualization of a page of the Feedback Playbook where we share the expectation that you should balance your feedback.
Visualization of a page of the Feedback Playbook where we share the expectation that you should balance your feedback.

Over 50 Thoughtworkers around the world provided feedback on this guide. Almost all of them said they were very likely to recommend the Playbook, and 80% said that they think the playbook would help them to receive and deliver better feedback. We were back on track!

Visualization of a page of the Feedback Playbook where we demonstrate how different types of feedback unrolls.

Visualization of a page of the Feedback Playbook where we demonstrate how different types of feedback unrolls.

Bringing value to the people: the roll-out 

We rolled out the Playbook alongside an internal website that features activities, books, articles and videos. The Feedback Playbook is a digestible guide on “How we handle feedback at Thoughtworks", while the website provides additional insights and resources for those who want to learn more.  

Feedback hub
This image displays how the internal website looks like.

Volunteers helped us to raise awareness of the Playbook in their teams, offices, and regions. Leadership led by example, sharing what they learned out of it and recommending others to do the same. Instead of a single top-down communication, we created multiple channels and touchpoints to reach as many people as possible.

Some other Thoughtworkers volunteered to translate the content into their native languages such as Chinese, Portuguese, and Spanish. So, we created working groups to support them to make this happen. We were thrilled to make the content more accessible, and it was rewarding to engage in a process where so many people took action to make this material even better.

How to measure success when there are no clear and tangible metrics

To monitor our impact, we are using Kirkpatrick's model of evaluating learning, which has four levels: awareness, reaction, behavior, and results.  

Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Learning Evaluation
Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Learning Evaluation

Reaction and Awareness can be measured even at an early stage: how many people were exposed to the Playbook? What do they think about it? What does their engagement look like? What feedback did we collect from the website? 

The following levels, Behaviours and Results, on the other hand, are not necessarily measurable right away. People take time to learn, apply new behaviours, and demonstrate results. 

Our work has reached a massive scale of Thoughtworkers, and we can observe them using the materials for self improvement, leading to a better feedback culture. However, it is too early to observe a consistent change in individual behaviours, which is what we are looking for in the long run. We will continue to evaluate the impact of this work.

Evolving our organisation through design

Creativity and experimentation were key in ideating, crafting and delivering this piece of work. We conducted user research in 12 countries, we have co-designed the guide with our users and iterated based on feedback. Although we started with a clear problem statement, we ensured we left enough room for the right solutions to arise.

Design Thinking, a human-centered approach to innovation, played a key role in this process, but it was not enough on its own. We leveraged the domain knowledge from the Learning & Development team and operated under the umbrella of a major internal Change Program, committed to enhance our organisation through the implementation of small initiatives connected to a bigger vision.

Designing for culture is not a single person or role effort, nor the creation of a manifesto or a playbook. Designing for culture is about creating and fostering momentum, where problems, opportunities, and interests converge with a will to change so we can create something better than we had before.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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